Revival Resuscitates Forgotten Medical Comedy

Square MaMa's Production of 'Bad Habits' Manages To Update Source Material, Despite First Act Flaws

Photo: TREATMENT IS WORSE. Brett Sharenow (left) and Tom Juarez star in
Square Mama/Courtesy
TREATMENT IS WORSE. Brett Sharenow (left) and Tom Juarez star in "Bad Habits," now playing at Theatre Rhinoceros.

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Square MaMa, the company responsible for Theatre Rhinoceros' current production of Terrence McNally's comedy "Bad Habits," has an ambitious charter. Rather than develop entirely new material, they seek to revive performances that have been cut down in their prime due to circumstances largely out of their control. "Bad Habits," for example, made a dizzyingly quick transition from Off-Broadway to Broadway in 1974 after strong critical praise but failed to keep audiences for more than a few months before closing its doors.

Attempting to resuscitate a comedy bears its own special burden, and the potential for flopped jokes and lost interest runs particularly high. Even unlucky falls from grace tend to happen for a reason, and the likelihood of letting a bad bit of humor through and repeating the original silent-crowd effect poses new challenges. Add to that a two-part format with unique characters and differing thematic styles, and lulls in the laughter are almost unavoidable.

In the case of "Bad Habits," this dilemma manifests itself in a somewhat weaker first act. This portion of the performance is set in Dunelawn, an expensive psychological retreat where recovery is pursued by facilitating a complete surrender to vice. The premise is promising, but the dialogue and at times the atmosphere itself get lazy in their critique of excess and devolve into a somewhat cliche exchange between people with too much money and not enough sense. The laughs are there, but a few of the comedic roles fail to breathe new life into their personalities. By the same token, when the actors are on their game, they really own their dysfunction. Special credit goes to the dry and vaguely sexual German waiter Otto, played by Remi Barron, whose physical presence and mannerisms on stage bring light to the more average moments of the act.

The second half of the performance livens up significantly in both content and consistency of quality. The new location, a highly regimented prohibitionary institution called Ravenswood, takes a more Huxley-esque approach to perfection by restraining and drugging its patients into submission. The free-flowing martinis are replaced by Dr. Toynbee's miracle serum, administered by a nurse operating under the assumption that a patient in a stupor is intrinsically happier than one trying to cope with his or her addiction. More important than the extent of the plot contrast, however, is the marked improvement in the depth and originality of characters, as well as the dependable strength of the actors' execution. Barron turns in another scene-stealing performance as a confused elderly drunk, but the jokes as a whole are also superior to their predecessors. Lower-energy moments come off less as pitfalls than slightly more understated uses of humor, and few if any important lines evoke the occasional cricket-chirp feelings of the first.

After this late comeback, Square MaMa does a good job of saving the play from its curse of untimely departures. By rescuing "Bad Habits" from the shame of a limited Broadway run and doing justice to its intriguing concept, they succeed in giving life to a piece which, despite its flaws, deserves an appreciative audience. The relative hit-and-miss comedy of the first act is far from irreversible, and the second act easily mends partially unfulfilled expectations and is sure to have the audience chuckling in unison far more often. The actors all give earnest and enjoyable performances, and the successful attempts at laughter outpace the duds in frequency and impact. There is theatrical value there for everyone, and it will be hard for viewers of any type or taste to walk out without a smile.

Have Brendan committed to Dunelawn at [email protected]

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